Marti Belle knocks down barriers for a living — literally. A professional wrestler on the American independent circuit, the Afro-Latina is the first-ever dominicana to compete on WWE and Impact Wrestling stages.
The New York City-born fighter kicked off her career in 2008 as a valet for Tristan Spade for the World of Unpredictable Wrestling. A year later, she made her wrestling debut, bringing her agility and strength to the ring.
Since then, Marti Belle, born Martibel Payano, has proven to be a force on stage. The 29-year-old, formerly a TNA Knockout who also appeared on the WWE’s Mae Young Classic, has several championships, including with the American Pro Wrestling Alliance, New York Wrestling Connection, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Shine Wrestling and Women Superstars Uncensored.
We had the chance to speak with the Latina making a living out of literally kicking ass about wrestling, representation, challenges and making her dreams come true.
1. We can tell by your social media presence and wrestling singlets that you’re dominicana. Tell us about your upbringing.
(Courtesy of Marti Belle)
I was born in New York City and moved to La Romana, Dominican Republic. I moved back to New York for good at age 7 to live with my abuelita, Martina. I grew up in the Inwood/Dyckman area of Manhattan. There was a true sense of community. It felt like everyone knew each other. I loved playing outside and grabbing a slice. Now I currently live in Kansas City and previously lived in Cleveland, but going back home is one of my favorite things in the world. My abuelita made sure that I grew up with my culture deeply instilled. Spanish was my first language, and the only language my grandmother communicated in, so thanks to that I was completely immersed.
2. Speaking about your childhood, did you always dream of being a wrestler?
When I was younger, my goal was acting, to be in novelas and movies, but I wanted to be something other than a side character, the nanny or the maid. I wanted to be featured in the lead roles, la protagonista. I just never saw that growing up. It was hard to find someone who looked like me in the shows I would watch on TV, even on Telemundo or Univision.
3. It’s true. It’s rare to find Black Latinas, or even athletic Latinas, on our TV screens. Even in wrestling, you’re the first Dominican woman wrestler in the history of the WWE. How did you stay motivated to materialize your dream while not seeing yourself represented?
Even though I didn’t realize it as a young girl, my abuelita was my hero. She was the greatest example of hard work, compassion and determination. She pushed me to follow my dreams and was my No. 1 fan in anything I did. She would attend my softball games and then sit through a three-hour play in English, even though she didn’t understand it, just to see me on stage. It’s still a goal of mine. I want girls who look and sound like me to be able to turn on their televisions, see me in the ring, on a show or even YouTube, and see themselves truly represented. I must also point out that JoJo Offerman is a ring announcer and wrestler, and she is of Mexican and Dominican descent. So I like to say I am the first female Dominican citizen, which I guess is more accurate. My parents see me on TV and online a lot, and they saw me wrestle live once in DR. Sharing that with my family keeps me motivated.
4. Can you remember a particular moment when you decided you wanted to be a wrestler?
(Courtesy of Marti Belle)
When I moved back to New York City, my cousins and I watched WWF and WCW. We loved cheering on our favorites and yelling at the bad guys. I think this also helped me learn English faster. Ten years ago, I stepped into the ring for the first time as a valet, accompanying a wrestler to the ring. From that day, I knew I had to start training and be one of the girls actually wrestling. It was completely addicting.
5. What are some of the challenges you face as a woman of color in this industry?
I’ve always tried to keep a positive mindset and repeat to myself that challenges won’t last, but I will. When I was younger, I would always write down affirmations for myself, like, “approach things from a desire-based not fear-based.” It takes a lot of self-confidence to be able to navigate this industry. I remember when I first started, I was constantly told I had to straighten my hair because my curly hair wasn’t “professional.” And I actually did that for many years. It is very easy to lose yourself, lose your confidence and doubt who you are as a performer. I have to be able to think fast and be resourceful. I used to work for a company where I was able to wrestle, host and conduct interviews, and then the company closed.
6. You competed in the Mae Young Classic, as one of the only three Latinas in the entire tournament. What was that like?
Well the Mae Young Classic is a WWE tournament, with a lot of matches spanned over a few days. Three months to the date of my grandmother’s death anniversary, I got the call I had been waiting years for. The WWE invited me to participate in a match that would put 32 women from all over the world in the ring for the first time. I was selected to represent the Dominican Republic, which to this date is one of the biggest accomplishments of my career. I was eliminated in the first round, which is not what I was expecting or hoping for, but it was still an amazing experience. DR was one of three Latin countries represented in the tournament (Mexico and Brazil being the other two). During the first day of the tapings, we had what they call the Parade of Champions. They introduced us to the crowd one by one. Everyone was watching on Facebook Live back home. I managed to hold it together right until they said, “And representing the Dominican Republic…” and then broke down in tears because it felt so right.
7. If you could go back to when you first started, what advice would you give yourself and other women who want to break into professional wrestling?
I would tell myself [and other women] to always keep your head up. Challenging times will pass. Soak up as much knowledge as you can, especially in your first few years. Eventually, I decided to do my own thing, and embrace who I really was, then I started seeing more success. Once I learned to speak up for myself, I found myself getting better and bigger opportunities.